Burn Your Keyboard: A MAZE. / Berlin’s Alternative Controller Jam

Burn Your Keyboard

I‘ve been enthralled with alternative controllers ever since I covered alt.ctrl.gdc after last month’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It was like being a child in a candy store, surrounded by flashing buttons, adventure-printing boxes and sleeping bags I could pretend to be a caterpillar in. In summary, it was one of the highlights of my year, and I left alt.ctrl.gdc absolutely pumped about developing alternative controllers myself. I pulled up websites full of buttons, Arduinos and daisy chains. I was totally sold. When I heard that the creator of alt.ctrl.gdc’s Canabalt 100p, Jonatan “Joon” van Hove,  was running an alternative controller workshop at AMAZE. / Berlin, I knew I had to be there – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The title of the workshop on AMAZE’s website was “Burn the keyboard: Build your own custom controller,” and the description included such fantastical phrases as “let’s build a racecar, a joystick-cowboy-hat, maybe just the world’s largest joystick,… or whatever we come up with.” Armed with my writing peripherals, I strode into the workshop at AMAZE around an hour after it started and was greeted with a beautiful chaos of cables, circuitry and indie developers enthusiastically bludgeoning each other with cardboard tubes. This was easily on its way to being a highlight of the conference already.

There were three groups taking part in the workshop, all making very different versions of their visions of an alternative controller. Group 1 made a jousting game with the cardboard tubes, where the two players had to punch the button on their tube to the button their adversary was wearing. In a stroke of ingenuity, the body buttons were attached to military vests that the group had spotted in a shop across the street and hastily bought, knowing it would fit perfectly in with their project. You get points by having both the blue button at the end of your tube and your opponent’s button pressed at the same time, and the group had even made knight helmets by the end of the workshop which just added to the “fencing with cardboard” atmosphere. There was a suitable amount of gleeful violence, and it was extremely fun to watch the game come to life as I looked on.

Burn Your Keyboard

I talked to two of Group 1′s team members, Brenden Gibbons and Ijke Botman, during a lull in production about what they had gained from the workshop, and if there had been any takeaways for them. If there were any lasting fencing wounds. Where the military vests had appeared from, because I was genuinely confused.

“This workshop has really shown me that creating alternative controllers is easy. Our magic rectangle [circuit board] only cost like, twenty bucks, and it was so easy to implement,” Gibbons explained to me as constructive chaos reigned on in the background. “It’s like, we can actually do this. Making peripherals can be easy.”

As for Botman, he was of a similar positive opinion.

“For me, being able to step away from the computer and play in the physical world? It’s very enjoyable for me. I don’t think this happens enough, actually.”

Burn Your Keyboard

Moving on, I learned that Group 2 made a game where you controlled a balloon on the PC with their alternative controller. You could push the button to move, blow air into real balloon to go up or down thanks to the pressure sensor inside or boost it with the levers. They even MacGuyver’ed their own sandbag out of cardboard, foil and a water bottle to keep one of the levers down, which was fairly ingenious. I loved the balloon pressure sensor idea in particular, which seemed to be a neat facet to their game.

The final group, Group 3, had teething problems with their first idea, but moved on to bigger and better things by the time I came around to interview them. Their original goal had been to make a new controller that utilised a mouse’s tracking laser and a deodorant ball to make a massage controller. Yep, a massage controller. However, due to some issues getting it working, they moved on to making a co-operative drawing game. One person massages a joystick to control the paintbrush, and the other pushes as button when they want “ink” to come out on the screen, obviously intended to birth many a legendary masterpiece.

Seeking out Joon, who is currently standing among a group of workshop participants, eagerly answering questions about more cardboard and circuitry issues, I thought it’d be nice to see if he’d gotten what he wanted out of the workshop. Alternative controllers are something that seems to come naturally to Joon, and it was great to see someone with experience sharing their knowledge in a practical fashion with other interested indie developers.

Burn Your Keyboard

“It’s my first time doing something like this, and hopefully not the last! Everything has been so exciting, even though so many things went wrong, like forgetting to order daisy chains,” he laughs, as another round of cardboard jousting begins in the background.

So, why did Joon want to run this workshop? Why did he want people building these weird, odd, functional works of art? How was Burn Your Keyboard born?

“It’s like… this workshop is a museum event, where you finger-paint, and you can take it home afterwards, but for adults. I was invited to Arcade Jam, and we brainstormed, just like here, but for 48 hours with a bunch of resources. Just made whack shit with what we had.”

I nod as I observe the equally whack shit on the tables surrounding us. It’s fantastic.

As the workshop winds down, the controllers get taken and put proudly in the glass case on display. You see it the moment you walk into The WYE to attend any talks at AMAZE. They’re the adult finger-painting projects, works of pure exploration, that we can take home at the end of the day – and they’re beautiful.

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